If you write about music online even once, something cool and unexpected happens: a handful of artists just like the one you originally covered will send you their music in the hope that you’ll write about that, too. Sometimes that doesn’t work and they’ll pursue other methods, like following you on Twitter, liking a bunch of your tweets, unfollowing you on Twitter, belly-flopping into your DMs, or sending a happy birthday text immediately followed by the link to an event page. The rock-star life, baby.
Self-promotional hustle has been a part of the music industry for as long as it’s existed, even if it now takes a more shameless form than in decades past. And you can’t blame any one factor for this, really: it’s both easier and harder to get noticed now, thanks to heavy saturation and something like 99 percent of all streams going toward the top one percent of artists. To stand out as a musical act, you’ll either need to make the best fucking music or have an extreme wealth of resources at your back. It’s not fair, or really all that cool, but there is one thing that all acts have in common: everyone has it in them to not take an awful press photo.
There are many, many ways your band can give off a bad first impression, and it usually starts and ends with the press photo. This sounds like an esoteric concern, but a press picture functions something like a lead Tinder image for an artist you’re first encountering through a blog, Twitter account, or show poster. Without the recommendation of someone whose opinion you trust or the all-powerful invisible hand of Spotify algorithms, we often make judgments on extramusical factors: album art, band name, and associations within a scene are among the many biases at play. It’s hard to defend superficial impulses, but it’s silly to deny them.
Which makes it that much more remarkable that so many of these first impressions suck so bad. Of course it’s far from make or break—I don’t expect people who are good at music to also be good at, say, making agricultural policy, so why should I expect them to excel at drawing up a coherent marketing campaign on their own? But most artists at least have the resources to cozy up with someone knows how to do the latter.
For those that don’t, though, I will engage here in some Service Journalism. You need a picture, and you need not to fuck it up. So here are some of the most reliable press photo tropes that every band would be right to avoid:
Having the time of my life with a bunch of friends
It’s one of the best Nathan Fielder tweets, but it’s also the basis for one of the most well-worn band photo shoots. Instead of putting up a smokescreen online to cover for IRL loneliness, artists across so many genres (but especially emo, for some reason) love to battle any misconceptions about their music by sharing a big laugh with their pals. “We may seem sad or serious as hell on the record,” these images say, “but here we are having a blast, like we always do. Music sure is funny!”
Having a great time down on the floor
When’s the last time you sat on the floor? It’s an option that’s preferable only to sitting on stools, and an uncomfortable, often painful place to find yourself at social gatherings. It’s bad for your ass, back, and self-esteem. A risky place to leave your beer, and even riskier if there are dogs around who could eat food off your plate. Would not recommend!
Men of the woods
Justin Timberlake took a public flogging earlier this year before anyone had heard multiple songs from his eventual dud album Man of the Woods, all on the basis of some extremely goofy, rootsy press photos and promotional videos. They inspired some valid clowning, for one, and the occasional 3,000 word essay about What It All Means. Of course it was preemptive, and of course everyone else does this for their press photos.
In the space above you’ll find, once again, the Foo Fighters, having a slightly worse time in the wilderness during a photo shoot for Rolling Stone. It’s all very serious and contemplative and offers some approximation of life between the coasts. Much like Timberlake, this almost never signifies the true Pivot To Country that everyone might have feared, but it always signifies a good reason to gang up on a popular artist online.
Explosions in the paint can
My sappy parents (Coldplay) invented this ten years ago for the Viva La Vida rollout, so I can’t knock it too much aside from the fact that no band should retread over perfection. Cut Copy (above) and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I am No Longer Afraid to Die both gave this look a whirl in recent years, so there’s been something of a Color Run Revival. It is unclear what this aesthetic choice is even trying to communicate. Are the dudes on either end shielding their eyes from all the paint being tossed on them? What is with the lingering blue cloud on the left? These are not rhetorical questions. I don’t know if these people are okay.
A band is not a team, so it’s not imperative to be friendly or even necessarily work well with your bandmates; sometimes it’s better if you don’t. So you absolutely don’t have to dress alike, or wear anything resembling a uniform when you perform. That said, I just can’t recommend the sort of Village People-lite cosplay, displayed above by Julian Casablancas’ side project The Voidz. I guess spontaneity’s cool, but at least try to look like you met at least once before the photo shoot.
The Music Knower
Most mainstream rock bands consist of a frontman and some other unrecognizable dudes. The wise auteur, who does the pondering, writing, and interviewing takes all the credit; then there are the other guys, whom I’d confuse in a police lineup if they were standing next to Pitbull or the dude who played Daniel Faraday on Lost. Up there on the right is Jared Leto, thinker, Oscar-winner, and anal bead enthusiast who moonlights with Thirty Seconds to Mars when not doing some deep method acting in comic book movies. I imagine he’s contemplating the Real America here, or something. Those other poor lads, for their part, are spent, and seem to be looking into the camera as a cry for help after the shoot’s fourth hour.
Don’t even try pulling this off.